Diana Brekalo (piano), Angela Whelan (trumpet) Play at Cadogan Hall, London

Beethoven, Peter Fribbins, Shostakovich; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Diana Brekalo (piano), Angela Whelan (trumpet), Robertas Servenikas (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London. 9.4.2011(CG)

Beethoven: Egmont Overture op. 84 (1810)
Peter Fribbins: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (premiere) (2011)
Shostakovich: Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings op. 35 (1933)
Beethoven: Symphony no. 8 in F, op 93 (1813)

The main event here was a new concerto by the British composer Peter Fribbins who, at the age of 42, has already made a name for himself as a composer of chamber works and as Artistic Director of the enterprising London Chamber Music Society, resident at the fine new King’s Place concert hall. Fribbins studied at the Royal academy of Music in London and later with Hans Werner Henze, and has won praise for composing in a communicative style, which does not adhere rigidly to any of the many “isms” prevalent in classical music today.

It has to be said that to write a piano concerto in this early part of the twenty-first century is not the easiest task to take on. So many famous concertos already! Do you draw upon earlier classical models, such as those of Mozart or Beethoven? Or what about the huge concertos of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or Rachmaninov? Or again, the equally important works of Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, Tippett or Ravel? Then there’s the wonderful concerto by the Polish composer Lutoslawski, and so on…Oh yes, piano concertos have fascinated and inspired composers ever since the instrument was invented, and one reason is that no instrument, save the organ, can compete on a more-or-less equal footing with a whole orchestra. The textural possibilities, therefore, become almost limitless; the orchestra can accompany the piano and vice-versa, and exchanges between the two forces can be brilliantly effective. Add the fact that, on the one hand, the piano can sing beautifully and, on the other, be as percussive as you want, and the composer is almost spoilt for choice in the invention of material. Nevertheless it is inevitable that the past will weigh heavily on the composer’s shoulders, and Fribbins readily admits that this was the case with him.

How then, did he set about his concerto? The piano writing is not choc-a-bloc with pyrotechnics for the pianist – it is not that sort of work. This is not to say that there are not technically demanding passages – there are – but this is first and foremost serious and personal music rather than a display piece. Fribbins notes that his influences in writing the concerto were the well-known lines by Omar Khayyam: “The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on…” and also his recent acquisition of a vintage Bechstein piano with a specially lyrical soft tone. The concerto is thus emotionally quite tense and dramatic, but there are plenty of more euphonious passages too. The idiom seems to come from a variety of sources; there are moments in the first movement when Bartók looms, particularly in the darkly chromatic contrapuntal writing which interests Fribbins; but then perhaps there’s a hint of Britten, maybe Tippett, and after a while I was reminded of Rawsthorne. But Fribbins has his own way of doing things too; although he’s seldom overtly melodic in this work, in that there are no grand themes, melody and line are present alright, and vitally important to his thinking. Fribbins is not afraid to hark back to earlier models with regard to the piano writing; there are some passages involving double octaves and so on, but here again, virtuosity is at the service of the music itself. The handling of the orchestra is also always sure; for this, as in the other items tonight, we did not have the full Royal Philharmonic, but a sensibly sized “classical” band with reduced strings.

As in classical models, the emphasis is on the first movement, which is the longest of the three. The work opens with slow, winding fugato music in the strings, and the tone, at once very dark and serious, sets us up for the whole concerto. Turbulence remains throughout the first movement, which, after the slow introduction, is mostly made of faster stuff. I was particularly taken with the second, slow, movement. There’s a sort of snaky, bluesy theme played by a solo oboe with string accompaniment, and it’s taken up by the solo piano after a while, to be subjected to more and more movement in a central section; there are still bitter dissonances when the initial theme returns with some interloping fanfare-like figures from the trumpet. The last movement follows without a break, and is initially quite strident. There is then a slower section and gradually material from the first movement takes over, with more fugato writing again. It was quite difficult to take in the form of this movement on first hearing, and I worried that with five different tempi markings, the shape was perhaps a little too discursive.

The Croatian pianist, Diana Brekalo, is a tremendously appealing soloist, and she seemed to have the measure of the concerto, which Fribbins composed specially for her. She shone again in Shostakovich’s engaging Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings after the interval, and Angela Whelan was the equally delightful trumpet soloist. To start and finish the concert, we had energetic performances of Beethoven, conducted with enthusiasm by Robertas Servenikas, whose main activities are with various orchestras in Lithuania. Perhaps not quite the most polished performances, these, but enjoyable nevertheless, with some fine playing from the RPO’s woodwind in particular.

Christopher Gunning